How Great Leaders Choose The Right Successor


One of my earliest heart-breaking memories is from eight years old.

Mrs Fletcher, the school teacher who had led our class since we had started at four years old retired. The kind lady who had taught us to read, write and start to discover the world for ourselves would no longer be a part of our lives.

At the time, I was devastated.

To our delight, on the first day of our new term Mrs Fletcher made a surprise return to introduce our new teacher Mrs Davies. Over the course of a few days we had two teachers in our class. Soon, we all appreciated how great Mrs Davies was….and slowly didn’t even realise Mrs Fletcher leaving.

Choosing the right successor is perhaps the biggest decision any leader will make.

We all have numerous examples of organisations that achieved tremendous success under legendary leaders who then fell apart upon them leaving. Businesses, social leaders and even sports teams that struggled for generations to rediscover the magic of past glories.

So how to decide?

Here are some ways how great leaders choose the right successor.

source site They give themselves time

Successful change requires time.

Especially when it involves a large scale change such as the change of leadership.

People are complex. Organisations made up over thousands or millions of people even more so. In order to analyse things properly and make the right decision it’s essential to be as diligent as possible.

Great leaders understand that choosing the right successor is a time consuming process and not something that can be done in a couple of interviews or over a board-room meeting. They are continuously monitoring the needs of the organisation and assessing the capability of potential successors. In fact, in the business world things can often change so quickly that the right person to lead the organisation today may not be the right person to lead tomorrow.

Furthermore, by giving themselves time, they also allow the opportunity for other’s in the organisation to fully support their final decision.

Great leaders give themselves time.

They cast the net wide

In ten years as a recruiter working with thousands of high-profile executives, one thing I can say with confidence is that contrary to popular belief, leadership can often be quite isolating.

Hence the saying “it’s lonely at the top”.

It’s often due to the fact that most leaders are usually engrossed with supporting their followers and usually totally focussed on the goals of the organisation.

In any case, it’s therefore common for many leaders to “earmark” successors that are close to them, many years in advance and stick-by these candidates until eventual succession. Sometimes even “rewarding” these people for their loyalty and years of service.

Although it’s essential to identify particularly impressive performers, making a high-stakes and complex decision on a small shortlist is a dangerous game. In this increasingly competitive and rapidly change we live in today, it’s essential to see who else is out there and exactly what skill and talent is available.

Great leaders choose the right successor by putting them through a testing process. Since they realise that leadership itself can often be a gruelling and competitive place to be, they ensure that their eventual successor has to work hard to earn it.

Great leaders instil competition.

They don’t try and replicate themselves

But perhaps the biggest mistake that any leader can make when choosing a successor is to try and do the impossible:

To try and replicate themselves.

With the inevitable comparisons that are abound to arise with the performance and actions of their predecessor, it’s essential to choose people who are strong enough to deal with scrutiny and create their own identity.

Great leaders understand that there are numerous ways to be successful. Rather than hope to try and re-create the past, they choose successors who are able to strongly transmit their own positive values and can take the organisation forward successfully. They choose the best person for the organisation – not the person most similar to themselves.

Great leaders look forward.


Great leadership creates great eras.

But great succession creates great history.

Successful leaders realise that the greatest gift they can give their followers is perhaps their last one – the strong leadership of a worthwhile successor.

How will you choose your successor?

Want to read more?
– How Great Leaders Displace Competition
– How Great Leaders Unlock Other People’s Potential

Want more resources on how to best land your next leadership opportunity?